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Guest column by Becca McGowan

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Alright, alright…I admit I haven’t been reading Dale’s blog. He’s been blogging for about nine months – oh, a year? – but somehow I never get around to reading it. Oh, I hear about what he writes on occasion as the day winds down and he shares a response that a reader had to a particular entry…it’s just that I never get around to actually reading the blog myself.

Nevertheless, I’ve been invited to write an entry. I don’t even remember the last time I had to write something of this length that others would read. I can’t even keep up with an easy book journal. I find writing intimidating. But as I thought about writing an entry, I actually became excited and curious: What would I write about, who would read it and how honest would I be?

Here goes…

I find people’s personal stories fascinating. We learn so much about each other when we know something about each other’s pasts. So I’m going to start with my personal story, specifically my family of origin and the role of religion in my upbringing. I feel very strongly that our families of origin play a significant role, positive and negative, in how we ourselves parent.

My mother is the daughter of a Southern Baptist minister. Let me emphasize the Southern. My mother and her three siblings seem to have loved their father dearly. Their descriptions and my memories of him are of a very loving, generous and kind man. Our son is named after him.

My father was also raised in a Southern Baptist family, and his father was in the military. I don’t know how regularly they attended church or with what intensity their beliefs were practiced. My parents met at Oklahoma Baptist University, and when I was born, my parents attended First Baptist Church, Atlanta.

Since the word “Baptist” has occurred four times in two paragraphs, it’s safe to say I have a Baptist background.

But my parents eventually left First Baptist because of disagreements with church ideas and wound up at Mount Carmel Christian Church. Notice the missing denomination.

The change did not go over well with my mother’s parents.

My parents eventually divorced. When I was in second grade, I moved with my mom, sister, and new stepdad to San Francisco. This reintroduced the Baptist thread, because stepdad was a Southern Baptist minister. Or had been, anyway—he left the church when the church turned its back on him during his divorce. His feelings of rejection and church hypocrisy were intense. Soon after we moved to San Francisco, by his orders, our family stopped attending church.

Not exactly how my mother had envisioned our new life in California.

My stepfather eventually began playing racquetball on Sunday mornings, which gave my mom an idea: she could take us girls to church during racquetball time. He wouldn’t have to go. But another family dynamic comes into play here – one we definitely don’t have time to get into: Our family, he said, did things “as a family” or not at all. Either we all went to church, or no one went to church. Since he wasn’t going, neither would we.

What’s a well-intentioned Christian mother to do? Well, since Tuesday nights was our stepdad’s late night at work, we started praying before our meals on Tuesday nights. After the meal my mom would choose a passage from the Bible, read it to us, and try to discuss it with us. If we heard his car come up the alley, we quickly put everything away.

This went on for years.

During this same time, our family began going to Grace Cathedral, the Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco—but only for Christmas and Easter services. (My stepdad was raised in the Episcopal Church so perhaps he felt some desire to reconnect with that denomination.) Since Mom got to pick what we did on Mother’s Day, we went to church on that day as well.

So let’s sum up: We have the Southern Baptist preacher’s daughter who occasionally goes to the Episcopal cathedral and one night a week secretly teaches her daughters about Christianity. We have the former Episcopalian turned Southern Baptist minister turned church-rejecting stepfather. And you have me, the quiet, observant, relatively compliant teenager.

Decision number one: When I go to college, I’m going to church every Sunday.

Decision number two: When I get married, we’re going to pray before dinner.

I headed to UC Berkeley, and sure enough, began going to a local church. I don’t even remember the denomination. Even after spending a Saturday night at a boyfriend’s place (okay, that’s my first sweaty-palmed honest phrase…what if my mother reads this?!) I would get up on Sunday morning, put on my nice clothes and walk to church. I continued going to church during college and during grad school at UCLA. And all along, it had more to do with defiance of my stepdad than belief.

When Dale and I got married, we didn’t pray before meals but did attend Wooddale Church, a Baptist-aligned megachurch in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. We went to Wooddale for about five years and even participated in a commitment ceremony with our two-year-old son, promising to raise him in a Christian home.

But it was wearing on Dale, and one day, as we were driving home from church, he said, “I just can’t go to church anymore.”

Let me stop there for a moment. As an elementary school kid, I wanted to go to church to make new friends and participate in the social activities I remembered from our time in Atlanta. As a teenager, I was completely neutral towards the Tuesday night prayer and bible verses. I was more in love with the fact that we were doing something behind my stepfather’s back. As a college student, I was in control of whether I went to church. And now, as a married woman, I was going to church with my family.

So “I just can’t go to church anymore” didn’t sit well.

Looking back, though — and it’s only recently that I have looked back — I realize it still wasn’t about belief vs. disbelief. I was still “siding” with my mom against my stepdad, still fighting a battle that was long since over.

There’s more, of course…but why not leave you with a cliffhanger until next time?

[On to Part 2]
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BECCA McGOWAN is an elementary educator. She holds a BA in Psychology from UC Berkeley and a graduate teaching certificate from UCLA. She lives with her husband Dale and three children in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.